Madhur Jaffrey was born in Delhi, India, and educated at St. Mary’s Convent, Kanpur, and Queen Mary’s Higher Secondary School, Delhi. She went to college at Miranda House, a college within Delhi University, where she majored in English literature, scoring the highest marks in the entire university upon graduation. While at Delhi University, she won many drama and debating prizes.
She then worked at All India Radio as an announcer, disc jockey and actress. While gaining this experience, she was a member of the Unity Theatre in Delhi, a group that tried out experimental plays in the English language.
On the basis of her performance in Tennessee Williams’ Auto-da-Fe, Miss Jaffrey won a Government of India scholarship and left for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Her first scholarship was supplemented by two others — one from the British Coun¬cil and the other from the Royal Academy itself. She stayed there for two years and was awarded a Diploma with Honors, a rare distinc¬tion. While in London, she played the lead in various BBC television and radio plays. These included The Bloodless Arena, directed by John Elliot for television, and Othello for radio. Miss Jaffrey played Desdemona.
An invitation to teach pantomime brought her to the United States in 1957, where she worked at St. Michael’s Playhouse, Winooski, Vermont. From there she went to New York in search of work in the theater. Her performances in the Off-Broadway theater included a variety of plays: Shakuntala, produced at the St. Marks Theater; King of the Dark Chamber, which ran for nine months at the Jan Hus Theater; and Brouhaha, in which she played Viveca Lindfors’ daughter. She received outstanding notices in the play; A Tenth of an Inch Makes a Difference. Brendan Gill in the New Yorker Magazine said, “Miss Jaffrey gives a lovely performance as the girl and the scene in which she scrapes the bowl of lentils clean with her little finger is a beauty.” The New York Post said: “Miss Jaffrey can express more with her eyes than a lot of actresses can manage with their whole bodies.” She was seen in a number of television shows, such as The Nurses, U.S. Steel, The Jack Benny Show, The Armstrong Circle Theater, etc.
Miss Jaffrey has appeared in two award-winning short films directed by Rolf Forsberg. The first, called Parable, was commissioned and shown by the Protestant Council of Churches at their New York World’s Fair pavilion in 1964 and 1965. The second was The Antkeeper for NBC in which she played the angel, Lucifer.
In 1964, Miss Jaffrey returned to India to star in Merchant – Ivory Production’s Shakespeare Wallah. Her part was that of a tem¬peramental film star. When the film was later presented at the 1965 International Film Festival in Berlin, she won a Silver Bear as Best Actress, and when the film was shown at the New York and London Film Festivals, her performance was singled out by such critics as Kenneth Tynan, writing in the London Observer, who called it a “ravishing study in felinity.” Time Magazine said, “Miss Jaffrey dances away with the show. Pale as an ibis, she slithers through the film like an erotic temple carving come to life.”
In 1967, Miss Jaffrey starred with Rita Tushingham and Michael York in the Merchant Ivory/20th Century Fox’s production of the Guru. Here again, her personal reviews were raves with Leo Lerman of Mademoiselle saying, “Surely she is a very great actress,” and John Coleman in the New Statesman referring to her as the “magnificent, raging Madhur Jaffrey.”
She has appeared in the Broadway plays, The Guide, in which she played the female lead and got excellent notices, and Conduct Unbecoming.
Miss Jaffrey has also toured the United States under the man-agement of Colston Leigh, doing dramatic readings of love poetry for colleges and clubs.
In 1974, Miss Jaffrey made Merchant Ivory’s Autobiography of a Princess, a two-character film with James Mason. The London Times referred to the “irresistible skill with which the duologue is played: Miss Jaffrey’s blind gaiety and James Mason’s shabby but carefully con-served gentility work in beautiful counterpoint.” Judith Crist, in the Saturday Review, said, “The Princess is played with pitiless perfection by Madhur Jaffrey.”
In 1982, Miss Jaffrey filmed Heat and Dust with Julie Cristie. Patrick Gibbs of the Daily Telegraph said, “Miss Jaffrey effortlessly dominates as the Begum.” The Standard said, “Whenever Madhur Jaffrey appears as the mother presiding over the palace women, she dominates the screen.” Judith Crist of the Saturday Review said, “Madhur Jaffrey is outstanding as the Nawab’s mother.”
In 1985, The Assam Garden, a film in which Miss Jaffrey stars with Deborah Kerr, opened in London to superb reviews. David Rob-ertson of the London Times said, “Mrs. Lal is another wonderful cre-ation by Madhur Jaffrey — a mixture of comedy and dignity, wisdom and simplicity, kindness and…terrible ferocity.”
The year 1986 saw Miss Jaffrey appearing as Medea in London at the Lyric, Hammersmith. Time Out referred to her as “a Medea whose every graceful gesture suggests the outcast she is. Jaffrey is a bitter, calculating Medea who delights in the Messenger’s detailed and horrific account of the deaths of Creon and his daughter.”
John Barber of the Daily Telegraph said, “Miss Jaffrey is well cast: Medea was a foreigner in Corinth and a sorceress to boot. The actress’s dark beauty, her liquid movements and her compact, con-tained mien belong to the exotic as much as do her black garb, her red fingernails and her many bangles and flashing rhinestone beads. ”
Also in 1986: Lovematch, a BBC television film. The Times said, “Using the lowest of gears, Madhur Jaffrey crossed patches of sentimentality which would have bogged down many a lesser thespian.” Today said Miss Jaffrey performed ” with great dignity … as the wife.” The Telegraph, “The standard of acting was uniformly high: the reliable Madhur Jaffrey made an understanding and tolerant Muslim parent.”
1987: A Perfect Murder, a Merchant Ivory film.
1989: A Wanted Man, a three-part, BBC Television drama series about a serial killer. Miss Jaffrey plays the killer’s psychiatrist. Time Out, referring to the series as a “television highlight of 1989″, said that Miss Jaffrey gives a “great performance” and that “ultimately Jaffrey will prove the strongest force at work in the series.” The Correspondent called Miss Jaffrey “excellent” and the Sunday Times said, “Madhur Jaffrey gives a marvellous performance.” The Daily Mail said, ” Madhur Jaffrey as his (the killer’s) psychiatrist delivers a speech in his defence so movingly you feel there is only one way the jury can vote.” It also referred to Miss Jaffrey’s performance as “frighteningly realistic.” The Daily Telegraph and the Yorkshire Post called Miss Jaffrey’s performance “fine.” The Guardian said, “In the later plays, it is the psychiatrist played by Madhur Jaffrey who dominates the drama…In the witness box during the trial she is infuriating, a splendidly supple, subtle performance. She has a sense of specialness — a slender woman in a sari in conflict with the huge male, English figure of the prosecuting counsel. She has total belief in her case, a professional hauteur.”
In 1992, Miss Jaffrey played the lead, with Billie Whitelaw, in a 4-part television drama series, Firm Friends for ITV. Today said, “I have long been a fan of TV cook Madhur Jaffrey…Not only can the woman create heavenly Indian cuisine and write inspirational recipe books, but she can act the socks off many British actresses on our screens.” The Times of London said, of Miss Jaffrey “hers is a finely nuanced performance, gently saving her employer’s blushes while preserving her own dignity.”
In 1992, Miss Jaffrey played the lead in My Ancestor’s House at the Theater for The New City in New York. Backstage said, “Miss Jaffrey handles the complex role of the emigree with depth and feeling.”
In 1993, Miss Jaffrey appeared in the Signature Theater production of the play, Two Rooms, by Lee Blessing at the Kampo Cultural Center in New York. The New York Times said, “All the performances were tellingly in character… (Miss Jaffrey) a platitudinous official, striking a corporate pose and speaking in euphemisms…expresses a personal involvement combined with a calculating sense of personal duty.” New York Newsday said, “It is Madhur Jaffrey’s subtly blunt State Department rep Ellen who gives the evening its sustained drive. Jaffrey, known here for screen appearances in Shakespeare Wallah and Heat and Dust, captures the right blend of arrogance and patronization that can make officialdom so loathsome. She is not afraid to let us write her off in the early scenes, which makes her later scenes that much more potent as we catch ourselves in the act of sympathizing with her…”
In 1993 Miss Jaffrey also won the Taraknath Das Award given by Columbia University for her contribution to Indo-American understanding through her work in the fields of acting and cookery.
In 1994, Miss Jaffrey appeared in Six Degrees of Separation, directed by Fred Schepisi, in Wolf, directed by Mike Nichols and in Louis Malle’s last film, Vanya on 42nd Street.
In1995 Miss Jaffrey filmed Peacock Spring, a two part drama series for the BBC. This was directed by Christopher Morahan, the director of The Jewel and the Crown. It was shown, to much praise, in Britain in early 1996 and as a two-part Masterpiece Theater series on PBS in the USA in the spring of 1996.
1999: Miss Jaffrey appeared in Flawless, starring Robert DeNiro, directed by Joel Schumacher.
1999: Miss Jaffrey given an Award for Excellence by Governor George E. Pataki and the New York State Division for Women in recognition of Women’s History Month for changing America through her work in the fields of acting and cookery.
1999: Miss Jaffrey played the lead in Last Dance at Dum Dum, a new play at the Royal Court Theater in London by Ayub Khan-Din (author of East is East). Clive Barnes, of the New York Post, who came to see the play in London, said, “The wondrously luminous Madhur Jaffrey…, once more emerges as one of the great actresses of her generation”. The News of the World said, “Madhur Jaffrey delivers one of the performances of the year.”
1999: Patricia Storace wrote a whole essay on Miss Jaffrey’s acting, saying among many other wonderful things, “Madhur Jaffrey’s performance does not depend upon the projection of brilliant personality but on the suggestion of history… complex, unresolved, at times unknowable and inescapable.” This appeared both in a book and in the New York Review of Books.
I999-2000: Miss Jaffrey appeared in Chutney Popcorn, an independent film by new director-writer, Nisha Ganatra. The film has been shown at the LA Independent Films Festival, the Newport Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival and many others. Variety said, “Madhur Jaffrey turns in what must be the most bitingly funny maternal portrait since Debbie Reynolds’ in “Mother”. Imbuing Meenu with quirky ebullience, she wrests irony and sarcasm from almost every line but manages to remain sympathetic even when she seems terribly out of touch with her daughters’ modern world,” The Boston Globe said that the film was “aided no end by the great Madhur Jaffrey.” Stephen Holden in the New York Times singled Miss Jaffrey out saying, “But the deepest and most complex performance is Ms. Jaffrey’s Meenu. While it would have been easy to portray the mother as a snobbish, homophobic spider-woman, Ms. Jaffrey conveys the pained ambivalence of a devoted parent struggling with her ingrained prejudices and sense of shame. For all her blind spots, she emerges as a ruefully funny life force who ultimately knows what really matters and sticks up for it.” Stanley Kauffman of the New Republic said, “And there is Madhur Jaffrey – there certainly is Madhur Jaffrey… In Chutney Popcorn she does the best work of hers that I remember and it’s comic – a garrulous, warm, unsuccessful ruler of the family who adores her daughters even as she fails to govern them. In the cosmos, there certainly is a cosmic Mom; and Madhur Jaffrey gives us the Indian version.”
1999-2000: Miss Jaffrey stars in the Merchant Ivory film, Cotton Mary, which she also co-directed. Here is what some of the reviewers have said:
- “A heart-rending portrait brought to luminous life by the magnificent performance of Madhur Jaffrey,” (Andrew Sarris in the New York Observer)
- “ The star of the show is Madhur Jaffrey, who gives a ferocious performance” (Jami Bernard, New York Daily News)
- “ Jaffrey has a field day with the role… she has several great scenes…” ( Lou Lumenick, The New York Post)
- “The film’s most fascinating character is brilliantly played by Madhur Jaffrey,” (Steven Farber, Movieline)
- “Madhur Jaffrey’s unforgettable performance sets off fireworks,” (Daphne Davis, Movies and Videos)
- “Cotton Mary is brought to life by the risks taken by Madhur Jaffrey in a brilliant performance,” (Leslie Camhi, The Village Voice)
- “Madhur Jaffrey, magnificent,” (John Patterson, LA Weekly)
- “Cotton Mary offers the formidable, internationally renowned Madhur Jaffrey,” ( Kevin Thomas, LA Times)
- “In Madhur Jaffrey, Merchant has given a world-class performer the role of her life… She charts the crumbling of a manipulative mind in superb detail making her Mary alternately frightening, despicable, pitiful and very much the victim of awful social forces beyond her grasping control.” (Bob Strauss, LA Daily News)
- “Jaffrey’s majestic presence…is good enough to make (her) pain part of a rounded performance (Desmond Ryan, Philadelphia Inquirer)
- “Madhur Jaffrey gives a mesmerizing performance (The Chicago Tribune)
- “Madhur Jaffrey is amazing” (Dann Pearson, Chicago Daily Southtown)
- “Acted with almost maniacal force by Jaffrey, Mary is at once fascinating and despicable” (Peter Stack, San Francisco Chronicle)
- “Jaffrey is memorably poisonous” (Desson Howe, Washington Post)
- “The performances, specially by Madhur Jaffrey, are excellent” (Sara Wildberger, Miami Herald)
- “Madhur Jaffrey is never less than fascinating to watch. Her Iago-like Cotton Mary is a magnificent creation, a woman whose identity is a crazy-quilt of Anglo-English vices piled upon a foundation of sand. It’s a performance of Shakespearean proportions. As unsympathetic as she is, when Jaffrey’s anti-heroine falls apart before our eyes, it’s a pitiful spectacle” (Jim Verniere, The Boston Herald)
- “Madhur Jaffrey is triumphant in “Cotton Mary”, enacting a tragic, culturally divided character of Shakespearean dimension. Jaffrey gives a theatrical intensity to her portrait of madness brought on by an irresolvable conflict between identity and a rigid social structure” (Philadelphia Daily News)
- “ The (film’s) reserve is heatedly offset by Madhur Jaffrey’s superb performance. She frighteningly, movingly breathes fire into Cotton Mary so that much as we may recoil from her terrible neediness, her monstrous blindness to the harm she is doing to herself and others, she is impossible to hate – or look away from. We are too much like her, if we view ourselves honestly. Jaffrey makes such an insight inescapable” (F. X. Feeney, Mr. Showbiz Movie Guide)
On December 14, 2000, Miss Jaffrey received the Muse Award for Outstanding Vision and Achievement given by New York Women in Film and Television. This year the only other actress to win this award was Anette Bening.
2001. Miss Jaffrey directed a reading of Sujata G. Bhatt’s Queen of the Remote Control for the Lark Theater in New York, acted in a short SciFi film, Grasp, for the SciFi Channel and recorded the audio version of Rohington Mistry’s novel and Oprah selection, A Fine Balance, playing all the characters.
Miss Jaffrey opened in ABCD, an independent film made by new director-writer Krutin Patel. This film had made the film festivals rounds (London, Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi, Houston). In Houston it won the Gold Star Award as the best, low budget independent film of the year. It opened nationwide in November with newspapers calling Miss Jaffrey’s performance everything from “exceptional” to “great”.
In December, Miss Jaffrey starred in an episode of Holby City, a very popular BBC TV series.
2002: Miss Jaffrey recorded The Miracle River, a radio documentary on the hidden Saraswati River for the BBC (Radio 4). She appeared at a fund-raising event in Vagina Monologues at the Apollo Theater and directed The Unsuitable Girls, by Dolly Dhingra for the Lark Theater.
2003: Miss Jaffrey appeared in Cosmopolitan, a film by Nisha Ganatra for PBS Television.
2003: Miss Jaffrey starred in EastEnders, Britain’s most popular evening soap.
2004: Miss Jaffrey starred in Bombay Dreams, an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical on Broadway. Clive Barnes of the New York Post said, “The deepest impression is left by that great lady of the London stage, Madhur Jaffrey, as the hero’s sweetly dignified grandmother. She has simplicity, grace and honesty…”
2005: Miss Jaffrey acted in a short film, Season of Madness, based on a Lebanese short story, directed by Katja Esson; a television series for Fox; a film on three generations of Indian women in New Jersey, Hiding Divya; and has just finished working on the Canadian film, Partition. Her film, Prime, written and directed by Ben Younger, in which she plays Meryl Streep’s therapist, was shown world-wide.
2006: Ms Jaffrey acted in episodes of TV’s Law and Order.
2007: Miss Jaffrey is performing in Suzan-Lori Parks’ 365 Days/365 Plays at the New York Public Theater and acted in the film, Phoebe in Wonderland with Felicity Huffman.
Miss Jaffrey has been awarded an honorary CBE (Commander of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II for “her services to drama and promotion of appreciation for Indian food and culture.”
2008-9: Acted in several Law and Order episodes, in an episode of Psyche and in a film, Today’s Special.
2010: Two of Miss Jaffrey’s films are to open this year, Hiding Divya and Today’s Special.